The Force is With Them
Sherri DuPree blows a bubble with her chewing gum, because that's all she can do right now. The gear has already been loaded in from the trailer, and another group is onstage, running through its sound check. Her brother Weston kneels in the corner, tuning his drums, and her sisters, Chauntelle and Stacy, are wandering around the empty club. They don't even have gum to keep them busy. Trees won't open for another 15 or 20 minutes, and MossEisley, the band the DuPrees are in, along with their friend Jonathan Wilson, isn't scheduled to perform for at least another hour. Probably longer. Sherri chews some more and blows another bubble, a little bigger than the last. Watching her, you'd never guess that yesterday, she almost died.
Well, that's the way the woman who rescued Sherri and the rest of the band from their broken-down van a few miles outside Omaha, Nebraska, would tell it. Probably wasn't quite so serious. The group members didn't seem to think so when they were laughing about it earlier, joking that they might've been bored to death, but that was the only real danger. Still, it was 8 degrees below zero and the Suburban they were in had just overheated. So it could have ended worse. Maybe their cell phone wasn't working. Or maybe no one could come pick them up. These things happen in Nebraska during the winter. But all that really happened was that a long trip home to Tyler became a few hours longer.
Here are a few other things you wouldn't guess by watching Sherri and the rest of the band roaming around Trees: that MossEisley--it's the name of a spaceport in Star Wars--just signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. after a handful of shows in New York and Los Angeles that had everyone with a pen trying to sign the band. That in less than a week, the group will open a trio of shows for one of its favorite bands, Coldplay, gigs that will put it in front of a few thousand people each night. That they've spent the past week or so recording their major-label debut in Omaha with respected producer Mike Mogis. Or that they're even a band: Stacy is only 14 years old and could probably pass for younger. The others aren't much older. Except for 21-year-old Chauntelle, no one else in the group will be allowed in Trees' upstairs lounge once the doors open; Sherri and Jonathan are 19, Weston is 16.
They act their ages as they wait for the show to begin, joking easily with their friends in Radiant, tonight's opening band. The DuPrees' dad, Boyd, hangs around, looking and acting more like an older brother, maybe a hip uncle. (His wife, Kim, usually comes to the shows and works the merch table, but she's sick.) If any of them are nervous--about the show, about anything--that emotion is manifest much differently on them than it is on anyone else. They look calm, like they've been doing this all their lives. Truth is, they almost have. Stacy wrote her first song (and the band's first, too) when she was 8. This is all old news to them.
To most everyone else, MossEisley's story is only now being heard. How they grew up in the country outside of Tyler with nothing to do. How that led to them picking up their dad's guitar and some other instruments, how they learned to make their own fun. How that turned into a band that has floored even the most cynical industry veterans. How this is all just getting started. The way it's going, this story is one that will be told for another decade, easy.
"They're the type of band that has the potential for a 20-, 30-year career," says Michael Barber, an entertainment attorney who started working with MossEisley in July. "It's not a band that's going out as a pop thing, and, you know, Britney Spears, as far as music goes, is over. This is a different thing. You have five members of the band that are all very creative and talented and are doing something that is somewhat timeless. If you would compare it to any band, I would think it would be more of a U2 scenario. Like a modern-day U2 that's gonna develop over time. The record that they're making now would probably be the U2 Boy record, and the rest is history, you know?"
Not that the group would be so bold as to weigh itself against U2. They don't even think they're the best band here at Trees tonight. Maybe it's all happened so fast, but no one in MossEisley realizes how far they've come and how far they can go.
"Why are y'all playing first and not us?" Sherri asks Daniel Hopkins, Radiant's drummer, not long before the show starts.
Hopkins laughs. "Because you guys are going to bring everyone," he says, as if it should be obvious.
When MossEisley takes the stage, just after 10 p.m., it's clear Hopkins was right: There's a bit of room at the back of the club, but it's only because everyone here is packed so close to the stage. The curtains swing open and the band launches into the first song of its set, "Over the Mountains We Go." Stacy's and Sherri's voices are as interchangeable as a $5 bill and five singles, but worth much more, making you feel something even when they're saying nothing. Musically, the group doesn't sound like anyone except itself--rare for any band, especially one whose members are so young.
But will all their talent be enough to keep the music industry from wearing these kids down? They've only been swimming with the sharks for a short time; too early to start bragging about not getting bit. In a way, it's appropriate that "Over the Mountains We Go" is the first song tonight. Because that's exactly what's about to happen to MossEisley.
Whatever lies on the other side of those mountains, whatever happens in the next year or the next 10 years, there is one thing no one will be able to take away from MossEisley: great songs. Not only are they younger than most bands, they're more talented, too. The other groups that traveled this path--Hanson, Radish, Silverchair--couldn't say the same.
Hanson, certainly, had more than a little in common with MossEisley. The three young brothers (ages 11, 13 and 16, at the time) scored a huge hit in 1997 with "MMMBop," an undeniably catchy bit of Jackson 5 jive that helped usher in the teen-pop era. But Zac, Taylor and Isaac were merely child actors, unable to make the transition to adult roles. They released a second record, This Time Around, in 2000, but the only people who really cared were their parents.
Ben Kweller was only 15 when Mercury Records dropped a million bucks in his band Radish's lap in 1996, not long after Silverchair's trio of 15-year-olds was sitting on top of the charts with "Tomorrow." Though Kweller has developed into a talented singer-songwriter in his early 20s, back then he was little more than a pocket Nirvana, imitating rather than innovating. Similarly, Silverchair was a travel-size version of Pearl Jam. Sure, they beat Creed to the punch, but that's not something you can really build a career on. Not surprisingly, they didn't. The only success singer-guitarist Daniel Johns has had since then is convincing Natalie Imbruglia to marry him.
But MossEisley stands on its own, keeping its influences mostly to itself; no other band readily leaps to mind when the group's playing, no easy comparison stands out. And their age is more of a hindrance than a selling point. The members of the group are older than their birth certificates would have you believe, at least when they're in a studio, onstage, in their bedrooms writing songs. They don't have to worry about making the transition to an older crowd, because as soon as you hear their songs or see them singing them, it's clear that they already have.
More important, or at least just as meaningful, the DuPrees are a different kind of family. Boyd says he and Kim don't really have any friends their age, simply because no one their age can relate to them. They listen to the music their kids listen to, go see the bands their kids like. But they like all of that, too. Put it this way: There aren't many other parents who plan family vacations around Radiohead shows. They aren't Shirley Partridge, but they're not far off.
It might have been different if Boyd and Kim hadn't decided to move to Tyler in 1990. They were living in suburban Houston before then, and Boyd was tired. Of his job, of the city, everything. He was, as he says now, going through a midlife crisis--at 30.
"We were burned out with the big city," Boyd says. "The big stone city, the big concrete jungle."
Kim encouraged him to quit--his job, Houston, whatever. So he did, and since the DuPrees had family in East Texas (Palestine, mostly), they decided to migrate to Tyler. Boyd wanted to change his life. He had no idea how much it would change.
At first, it seemed like the wrong move; the rented house they moved into--and lived in until they moved into their current home three years ago--was a glorified shack. Boyd can remember the toilet crashing through the floor one day, trying to fix it while water sprayed everywhere. It was like living in a foxhole, bringing them closer together than even the most tight-knit families. If you hang around with the family for even a few hours, it's obvious that they are all best friends, parents included.
The girls didn't mind growing up in Tyler much, if only because they had nothing to compare it to. "We didn't know any better," Sherri says, laughing.
"It was great," Stacy says. "We used to live in the sticks and play in the dirt."
"Yeah, we used to play in the dirt," Sherri continues. "Seriously, we played in the dirt and we rode bikes and we wrote songs. And that's all we did. It was awesome. We didn't have any friends or anything."
"There was nothing to do," Boyd says. "It was a big country kind of place, near a highway, on an acre or whatever. There was not cable, so they weren't sucked into TV. I mean, we watched videos, but other than that, you know, they had to find fun. So we had instruments around, and I'd always mess around with guitar and stuff."
Boyd is at their new home a few days before the gig at Trees. It's a nice two-story Tudor near downtown Tyler, situated on a quiet, tree-filled street where birds chirp louder than traffic (there's not much to speak of) and squirrels forage nuts out of hanging feeders. The front of the house is partly cloaked in ivy, and the rest is covered in Christmas decorations. Though it's almost February, the family has been so busy since the holidays--driving to Los Angeles to play showcases for record labels, then getting back in the van to record in Omaha--they haven't had time to take them down.
It's pretty much the same inside, where the Christmas tree dominates the living room, an oversized photo from It's a Wonderful Life hovers above the mantel and the stockings still hang by the chimney with care. Downstairs, it's like a Norman Rockwell painting, and as if to drive the point home, there are even some framed Rockwell paintings on the walls. It could be the living room of any other family in Tyler, down to the collection of Southern Living cookbooks neatly shelved in the kitchen. There are no clues otherwise, save for the acoustic guitar leaning against one wall of the parents' bedroom and a copy of Donald S. Passman's All You Need to Know About the Music Business lying around.
For a home that usually sleeps nine (including the DuPrees' youngest children, 12-year-old Christie and 8-year-old Collin, as well as Chauntelle's 2-year-old daughter Caitlin), it's strangely quiet. "This is the first time in 10 years I've been at the house by myself for a week," Boyd says. "It's never happened. And stranger stuff is gonna happen."
He's seen plenty of strange things since his kids became a band. The oddest might have been the first. Chauntelle and Sherri were starting to write songs, along with one of their friends. They would close themselves off, working on their music. And Stacy was desperate to join in, to be a part of what her sisters were doing.
"She'd come crying to us, literally, you know?" Boyd remembers. "We tried to explain to her, you know, Chauntelle's older and one day you'll understand. And she just wouldn't have it. She was very determined. She's very driven. So she started doing it herself, in her bedroom."
Stacy was inexperienced; after all, she was only 8. "I mean, I knew a few chords," she says. "I knew, like, G." She laughs, and so does everyone else. "I know, it's lame. But as soon as someone taught me a few chords, I just wrote a song."
She brought it to her sisters a couple of weeks later. They didn't try to keep her away anymore.
"When we heard it, it was amazing," Chauntelle says, "so we started writing together. And it sort of just slowly progressed that way. It wasn't like we decided to become a band or anything."
Since Boyd and Kim homeschool their kids, it left more than enough time for that slow progression to occur. By the time the DuPrees opened a coffeehouse in Tyler, BrewTones Coffee Galaxy, they were a band: The Towheads. This was around 1998, and by then, Stacy had switched to piano and keyboards, joining guitarists Sherri and Chauntelle and Weston on drums.
The DuPrees ran BrewTones Coffee Galaxy out of the church they belonged to, The Vineyard Church, on weekends. The Vineyard Church is national and nondenominational, based around the Bible, music and, more often than not, coffee. Located in a strip mall, the atmosphere is casual and comfortable, and BrewTones fit right into all of that. But, as Boyd says, it wasn't an excuse to preach to people.
"We were interested in building an indie scene in town," he says. "And though it was through the church, it wasn't really a church thing at all. I mean, it's a strip center. It was kind of something to get kids off the street. But it was not your basic Baptist youth group. It was totally punk and spikes, and everything from hardcore kids to straightedge kids. Every kind of music."
Pretty soon, the blossoming band took its hard work to other clubs, including The Door in Deep Ellum. Boyd and Kim had built a relationship with The Door, booking some of the acts that played there into BrewTones, sending some of the groups from Tyler west to Dallas. They still weren't used to being a band, but they were trying.
"When they first played here as The Towheads," says Russell Hobbs, owner of The Door, "they were doing a sound check, and the little cutest one, Stacy, was up there, and she was like, 'Can I get a little more monitor in my monitor?' They didn't quite have the terminology down yet. And that was just so cute. I'll never forget that."
Almost five years later, the learning process continues. Watching Wilson and the DuPrees set up for their show at Trees, it's easy to see that they've mastered that part. They know what to tell the guy running sound, what to ask for. And they're comfortable onstage, even when problems arise. Sherri's guitar isn't working during the first song, but she never panics, never misses her turn at the microphone. They're young, sure, but they've also been onstage long enough to consider themselves veterans.
But they aren't accustomed to the other things that come with being a band yet. They aren't used to talking about themselves or their music in interviews; Chauntelle does most of the talking; even then the most she'll say is a few sentences. They look uncomfortable when posing for pictures.
"That's kind of a scary thing," Chauntelle admits. "I don't know, it's different when you're onstage, playing an instrument, when we're all together. But, like, to do an interview, that's scary."
"We're still practicing," Wilson says.
"We need to take media training or something," Sherri says, laughing. They all laugh, because more than likely, it's true. With the band's back story--their age, the homeschooling, their relationship with The Vineyard--there will no doubt be some misconceptions along the way. It's probably a good idea to take a step back right now, so no one gets the wrong idea. Yes, the DuPrees and Wilson are Christians. And yes, they're in a band. But they're not a Christian band. They're not the uptight kids you might expect, preaching and policing. You wouldn't expect your average Baptist youth group to be singing along to Weezer's "Tired of Sex," as MossEisley does at Trees while waiting to perform.
"I think their lyric content is accessible to everybody and fairly mature, and it's really beautiful," Hobbs says. "And I don't think they've at all limited themselves speaking Christian-ese or anything. They're a great Christian family, but I wouldn't call them a Christian band. Since they had so many friends and they were part of the Christian scene, you know, with their own club in Tyler, I think the natural first step was to go play all the Christian places. And I think that they won the Christian crowd over."
They did just that last July when they played the Cornerstone Festival, an annual gathering born out of Cornerstone magazine and Jesus People USA that draws around 30,000 people to a field in Illinois. Around the time MossEisley played Cornerstone, the group also started working with Michael Barber, who's made a career out of taking bands on the verge over the edge, such as Ian Moore, Vendetta Red (now signed to Epic Records) and Acceptance (now on the Columbia roster). It was a musical game of telephone: A band MossEisley had played with at BrewTones went to Seattle to record an album for Tooth & Nail Records. The band gave a MossEisley CD to a producer and he gave it to Barber. He came to see MossEisley in Tyler, spent some time with the band over the weekend and decided to make it his next project.
"Generally, I work with bands early on and develop them to the point where they're ready for labels to see them and management to see them, and put the whole team together for them," Barber says. "But a lot of times, artists don't take to trying to define a good vision and aren't actually willing to work with somebody who's done it before in the industry. My experience with them was amazing, because, you know, if I said, 'I think right now it's the time to focus on your songwriting and keep developing your live show, and these are my ideas,' they would sit intently and listen to every idea I had. And within two weeks, those things would be implemented. To have that kind of open, collaborative situation was really nice."
At the same time, J'mel Burgos, south central regional rep for Warner Bros./Reprise A&R, first saw the band. In the two years she's worked for Warner Bros., Burgos had never gotten a band signed to the label. She could tell it was going to be different this time around.
"They definitely fill a gap," Burgos says. "I think it was just so fresh to see someone like that. Because every time you go see a girl band--I mean, I've been wanting to see a girl band do great, but they just all try to copy, I guess, what they have as their mentors, or as their idols. And I think with them, they weren't trying to copy anyone. They were just being them, doing their family thing. And it just really works."
It worked so well that by the end of last year, the group had won over everyone important in the Dallas music scene with its performance at November's North Texas New Music Festival.
"When we got up onstage, we didn't know why they were there," Sherri says. "It kind of freaked us out."
"I didn't think they were there for us," Stacy adds.
Dave Holmes, who guides Coldplay's career for Nettwerk Management, had signed on to help them win over everyone else. He and Barber set up showcases in Los Angeles for a handful of labels. By the time the band got back in its Suburban for the trip home to Tyler, it was only a matter of deciding which label it liked best.
"People were blown away," Holmes says. "They did very well. They did about six showcases for different labels, and every one of them went very well, in that every label immediately showed really strong interest. Every label wanted to sign them, essentially."
"What this band has, and the word that keeps coming up, is 'magical,'" Barber says. "Every label that has seen it, that came in to sign the band, including Rick Rubin, including the president of Columbia, including the president of Warner Bros., the word that came out of their mouths is that it's a magical thing. There's no other word to describe it. And it is. The showcases that they did in L.A. are just as good, if not better, than any other show you've ever seen. It was really phenomenal."
The members of MossEisley never wanted this. Growing up around BrewTones, listening to the bands that came through talk about their labels and the music industry in general, they didn't think it was for them--signing with a label, working with a manager. They were happy just to make music for music's sake, like they did when they were living in the sticks and playing with dirt.
"We were very, very surprised to find such nice people in the business," Sherri says, referring to the support team that has joined the band in these past few months. "Because we'd hear, like, horror stories from our friends." She lowers her voice, remembering those tales of woe: "'Labels suck.'"
Even though MossEisley found a label that didn't suck, the band still acts as if it's just another band from Tyler, not a group that is set to release its major-label debut (a six-song EP, Laughing City) in March, not a band that is about to tour with Coldplay. They don't hold any of it over anyone's head.
"We've kind of been finding out who our real friends are," Chauntelle explains. "We haven't been telling anybody, really--except for our close friends--that we're opening for Coldplay. We don't wanna come off like we're arrogant or anything."
"There's been friends that weren't really friends, like, trying to talk to us more," Sherri says.
There will probably be much more of that in the near future. Kids get jealous, and since that's what the members of MossEisley are, they're bound to run into more than a little of that. They, of course, know this. For now, it's all exciting, all an adventure. Their future lies before them, golden and glistening. That has nothing to do with hit records or being on MTV or making money or hanging around rock stars. It's about the same things as it has always been, as Chauntelle says, "family and fun and hanging out and music."
"Everything's been positive right now," Chauntelle says. "I don't think there's anything we're not looking forward to, or hoping to avoid or anything like that. I mean, I'm sure there's always things that can come up, but so far, it seems like there's nothing in the way right now."
If only it can stay that way.
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